Farmhouse Beer Safari

[IMG: Journey]

In early May 2012, we set out from Vilnius for the countryside of northern Lithuania. 'We' was some Canadians, Germans, Lithuanians, and not-quite-Estonians united on a safari in search for elusive creatures that are found in these parts in relative abundance - farmhouse beers. Some completely untamed, some hanging on even though on the 'endangered' list, some showing seemingly boundless energy. And that was just the Canadians who gave birth to this journey.

All images link to larger versions. Photos by Phil Carmody. All typos are mine, however.

The evening before our departure, we met up at Bambalynė, in Vilnius, always a good choice for well-crafted beers from many of the 'little guys' in a comfortable environment. In the photos, 'Goldilocks and the Three Beers': 'Is this too big?' 'This is too small!' 'This is just right!'

Night gave way to morning ... the breweries trip began

Stops on the tour:

Gintaro Baras

Our first stop was a brewpub in Molėtai, a lovely building where the brewer - who has a good taste in music, by the way - had some bottles of Belgian-style stout waiting for us, in addition to the regular fare (a light and dark beer and a gira). Some ate his freshly made pizza, and all headed downstairs for a look at the facilities.

Under the table
way under the table

Utenos - only joking!

As tempting as this rather larger operation was, we had other places to be.

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Though their 'Keptinis' beer doesn't follow the tradition behind that name - a style that involves making loaves of mash - it is still tasty and Kupiškio maintain the tradition of selling unfiltered beers to willing drinkers.

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Our next stop, in Biržai, was a two-parter. At the Rinkuškiai brewery, the things mentioned with the greatest pride were the headway that Rinkuškiai have made into the export market - for example, they now ship to Africa - and their use of 100% malts in their beers. Also of note are that some of Rinkuškiai's beers come as strong as 12% (far above the legal threshold to be established next year). We bought one at their shop and will see how it ages.

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For a pleasant meal and environment, we visited Rinkuškiai's lovely associated restaurant, Alaus Kelias. Upstairs was a miniature museum of traditional brewing

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And now ... a drink!

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The site of the Beer Bus's next destination was a rebuilt brick building that goes back a long way in brewing. In Soviet times, the manor hosted Communist Party officials' many events and brewed special beers for them. Now, the beers are available for everyone to enjoy, and enjoy we did.

Then, as the moon rose higher in the sky, we missed the Astravo brewery, but we would not go thirsty...

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'Some farmer in Biržų' welcomed us into his home with homemade cheeses and several 'just one more bucket's of beer, brewed by open fermentation in the basement. The berry beer was a bit adventurous, but pretty much everything - including the 'third running' - would put many of the commercial breweries to shame.

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Evening 1, sharing

Sharing on the first night of the safari proper included comparing of notes amongst the Canon fan club and sharing of Canadian, local, and other beers. Evening came and morning followed - the first day.

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Morning 2, exploring

After a night under the watchful eye of the local wildlife but before everyone else woke up to hit the road again, we went for a brief wander outside. We decided not to use the slide into the lake, though.

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Some elements of this brewery's history, dating back to 1686, are a matter of public record. For example, at one time, everyone along the water was required to produce malts, beer, or vodka. Others are a matter of legend - for instance, after the Swedes burned down the Rathaus and the brewery, legend has it that the latter was chosen for repairs first.

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Dvareliškiu Alus

The next stop was a quick one - we picked up the beers that were waiting for us, loaded them into the Beer Bus, and were then on our way again.

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In Pasvalys, we stopped at Morkūno (Jolus), where we were told that they were not brewing at the moment (the last batch was for New Year's). The brewery were making preparations to expand a couple of years ago, but changes in excise tax that treat all breweries in the same way, regardless of size, put the kibosh on that.

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Hill of Crosses

Some of us then went on a sojourn to the 'Hill of Crosses', a pilgrimage site that dates back at least to the uprising in the 1800s and more recently served as a place of expressing rebellion against Soviet ideology. We decided not to try counting the crosses that people have left here over the years.

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Rozalimo brewery tap

The next stop was the beautiful wood-filled environment that serves as the Rozalimo brewery tap. The prices too had an old-fashioned charm: we paid about 40 cents per 33 cl glass. After a shashlik for lunch, Davra was next.

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We arrived just after closing time at this brewery, which could be described as the 'biggest of the small guys'. Here, we nibbled on tasty bacon and drank the fine wares while being regaled with tales such as that of the Varniuku beer, originally made as a fittingly dark beer for a local crow-themed festival. We would not leave without accepting an extremely generous take-away portion.

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At Grigoniu, we were showed round the facilities by a neighbour. This brewery stands out in being one of the few whose tradition involves not actually boiling the wort.

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Our next stop was a visit to the alewife of Jovarų, who follows traditions such as filtering on canvas and reminisced about the family storing yeast at the bottom of old wells to settle ('I have to go dig up some yeast'). This much-lauded brewery's future is uncertain, and not all of the old-fashioned approach is a matter of choice - it would be expensive to replace the 70-year-old equipment (...'so we'll die with it') - but the result is tasty beer that left us feeling as if we were in the land of milk and honey around the table in her mini-museum-style attic.

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As it grew dark, we headed to the day's last brewery, Joalda. In Soviet times, they offered beer deliveries - connecting the hose of a beer truck to whatever vessels the customer had to hand. Today, they offer several beers, some worryingly strong, that may not be exciting but are made with skill.

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Evening 2, sharing

Evening 2 was spent on quite a large estate (Millhouse), again shared by local wildlife, and and on quite a large pile of beers. We did what we could, before we rose on another frosty morning and set off.

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On the road, day 3

Before our first appointment, we had dried fish to fight, beer to discuss, and whatever Phil is thinking about to think about in the morning sun.

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The building says 'There's no beer in heaven, so we'd might as well drink it here'. Standing with our mugs in the brewery museum outbuilding, we were told of the brewing process (he uses malt loaves and no boiling, uses steam for sterilsation, and doesn't share his yeast with anyone except his daughter - who will succeed him), the brewery's history (while farmers each brewed their own beer, Čižas beer was procured for special occasions), and his philosophy on second and third 'runnings': 'You don't do that with coffee...'.

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The word that came to mind here was 'steampunk'. This facility, while housed in an architectural heritage building, is only a couple of years old. While young and a very compact brewery, it promises big things - such as a Belgian-style beer. The drinks we had here, tapped from the fermentation vessels, were tasty ones.

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Su Puta

At the Su Puta beer kiosk - a splendid idea that - bottles were filled for us from behind glass.

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Early in the evening, it was time for a private screening of a new film featuring several of the farmhouse-brewing scene's characters we've come to know, such as Šnekutis (incl. playing with his moustache). Accompanying the film was the screening of a most tasty new beer, which we would sample the next day at the brewery.

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Piniavos's bar + Tree of Keys

The film was being shown also, to several of those featuring in it, at our next venue. Outside is a tree to which men nail keys to this day, in a pagan ritual that should free them from the evils of ex-wives and such.

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Evening 3, sharing + sauna

After the night's sharing, a sauna was proposed by the breakaway party who'd remained at the pub, courtesy of the Širvenos brewer. Once we'd left the building and gone a few tens of kilometres, we were fairly sure that the sauna wasn't as local as we'd assumed. The question of the night was 'Why are we having a sauna in the middle of the night in the middle of the countryside?'. There were no regrets, but we did decline the offer of a 3am brewery trip.

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While their strong beers (up to 12%) will say farewell with the new laws' entry into force, they're not worried here. Efforts seem to be afoot to emphasise a focus on quality beers. Seven beers, two runnings, patchy Soviet brewing vessels soon to be replaced, and pride in special German filtering sand.

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Alaus Purslai

A tall building in which they - by now, you may have worked out how this goes - brew beer. Not many breweries left now on our itinerary...

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A very big pub, a tasty bean concoction and some drink to fortify us, and table football battle scars for Phil.

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Miežiškių and Trakiškių

There are two breweries in the same building, sharing facilities that at the moment are mostly unused (we checked out Miežiškių first). They are transitioning to weaker beers and trying new recipes and a new mash process ('Now I remember what it's called [in English]! Oh, it's secret.'). Here we again had the new beer that we'd greatly enjoyed at the film screening and tried another experimental one, using cannabis. And we saw yet another of the many local variations of northern Lithuanian beer jug design.

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Evening 4, Šnekutis Old Town

Back in Vilnius, we rewarded ourselves with some favourites at Šnekutis, run by a former brewer who decided to share the farmhouse beers with a larger audience. He now has two outlets, so the obvious thing to do after visiting this one was to go the other, in the Užupis district.

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Evening 4, Šnekutis Užupio

Martin's able directions saw us to the other Šnekutis without a hitch. This venue fits well in this World Heritage Site artists' community environment. We headed back into the centre, to Visų Šventųjų ('All Saints') and made our farewells as the evening drew to a close and we prepared to return to our respective places of origin.

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